Fifth Amendment: Right to Remain Silent

The inspiration from this post comes from an article that you may wish to read. It is an article that describes how one attorney took his client’s rights so seriously that he ended up in contempt of court because of it- and how one judge can be so far off base that having a dedicated attorney is not only a benefit, but an absolute necessity. See this ABA article: “Law Firm Says Judge Jailed Defense Attorney for Telling Client to Take the Fifth.”

The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides the right to remain silent, it is also less commonly known as the right not to incriminate oneself while testifying in court or speaking with law enforcement or prosecutors. You may choose to waive that right and confess, but all defendants are to be made aware of the right to remain silent.

The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution is mirrored by the Pennsylvania Constitution in Article I, Section 9, which states that an accused cannot be compelled to give evidence against himself. The Pennsylvania courts have interpreted the two provisions together, and use federal standards when examining the Pennsylvania privilege.

The right applies any time a witness (not just the defendant but any witness) is asked to testify or talk about a subject that may implicate him in a crime. If the witness thinks that his or her statement will show criminal involvement, then he or she has the right to take the Fifth and refuse to answer the question. This right applies anytime the statement may be used against the person, not just at trial, but at any time when the person is asked a question by judicial officers or law enforcement, from initial interrogation to the appeal.

Be careful, because even in a civil proceeding, if the statement could cause criminal proceedings, then the witness may take the Fifth. The same applies to an administrative proceeding. If you are in front of the state licensing board or the employment board or a similar board you have the right to take the Fifth there as well.

An attorney should be prepared to object to any question which may incriminate the witness- especially if the witness is also a defendant. Failure of the attorney to make an objection can result in criminal prosecution (for an ordinary witness), conviction (for the defendant), and a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel (to which every defendant has a Constitutional right).

If a judge has compelled a person to testify despite their claim of the Fifth Amendment, it is grounds for what is called reversible error. Reversible error means that upon appeal, the appellate court will reverse the trial court’s decision and send the issue back for a new trial. Compulsion was what the judge was attempting to do in the article which inspired this post.

The privilege does not extend to consequences which would be non-criminal; this includes liability in a civil suit, community disgrace, loss of employment, or even something which would cause a loss of probation if it does not create any criminal liability. The court will also not stop the jury from making any adverse inferences or assumptions based on the refusal to answer.

Six Hundred Words About Pennsylvania’s Rule 600

The Pennsylvania Rules of Criminal Procedure Rule 600 considers the issue of speedy trials, and places a limit on when the Commonwealth can prosecute prior to dismissal for violation of your right to a speedy trial.

Right to a Speedy Trial:

The Sixth Amendment enumerates rights in criminal procedure, including the right to a speedy trial (and this right was imposed upon the Commonwealth through the Fourteenth Amendment). The speedy trial provision means that a person, who is accused of a crime and filed against in court, has a right to a quick adjudication. The speed that is required does depend in part on the crime committed and other factors.

The U.S. Supreme Court set out a test of four factors, which determine whether the right to a speedy trial was violated.

  1. Length of delay- the passing of more than 365 days from the date of the indictment raises a presumption of prejudice
  2. Reason for the delay- the reason for the government’s delay on the trial is to be taken into account
  3. Time and manner which the defendant asserted his right to a speedy trial- the defendant has the burden of challenging the violation
  4. The degree of negative effect the delay has had on the defendant and his case

Pennsylvania’s Rule 600

The Commonwealth largely follows the federal right to a speedy trial. The right is addressed by Rule 600. The Rule provides that a defendant is entitled to have trial within 180 days, if he or she is incarcerated, or within 365 days if the person is on bail. If the person is facing a new trial because of an appeal or a defect in the previous trial, then the count of days is 120. The date the time begins to run is the day the complaint is filed by the prosecution. If the case was transferred from juvenile court then the date to begin counting is the date of transfer.

Certain time is excluded from the count of days:

–          The period between filing the complaint and actually apprehending the defendant if the defendant could not be found

–          Any period in which the defendant waives his right to a speedy trial

–          Any period in which delay is caused by unavailability of the defendant or the defendant’s attorney

–          Any period of time that was given due to a motion filed by the defendant’s attorney

The count of days ends on the day which the defendant pleads guilty/nolo contendere, or when the judge calls the case to trial.

When the count of days exceeds 365, the defendant may apply to the court to have the charges dismissed with prejudice. This will precipitate a hearing in court.

The court looks at whether the Commonwealth was diligent in its preparation for trial. If the court finds that the delay was beyond the Commonwealth’s control and that the defendant has not been prejudiced, then a trial date will be set and the case will proceed to trial.

If the court determines that the Commonwealth was not diligent in attempting to prepare for trial or that the Commonwealth was purposefully delaying in order to prejudice the defendant, then the court will dismiss all charges and let the defendant go free.

If you or someone you know, is facing a criminal charge and you feel there may be a violation of your constitutional right to a speedy trial, you should contact your attorney. You should not wait until appeal to address this violation.  If you are unrepresented, contact us for more information and to discuss a possible violation.

What is a Seizure under the Fourth Amendment?

The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable search and seizure. Article I, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution mimics this protection. We have discussed the basic tenants of what comprises a search, but what is a seizure?

The most basic definition of a seizure is when government meaningfully interferes with an individual’s possessory property rights or liberty. So in order to have a seizure of a person or property, there must be a meaningful interference with a person’s property or with their liberty.

What constitutes a “meaningful” interference is a fact based question. Each case which challenges the interference with property rights will have to look at cases with similar fact patterns and determine whether the court would find that interference meaningful.

For example, an additional barrel of chemicals loaded onto your truck is not a meaningful interference with your property rights. However, a stop of your vehicle without any reasonable suspicion or probable cause of wrongdoing is a meaningful interference. Any restraint on a person’s liberty by a person of authority is a seizure, and sometimes that’s lawful, and sometimes its not.

Just being a seizure isn’t enough to be objectionable in court. The protection extends only to unreasonable seizures. So the question really is: what makes a seizure unreasonable? There is a three part test the United States Supreme Court developed to evaluate reasonableness.

  1. The gravity of the public interest which will be served by the seizure
  2. The degree to which the seizure advances public interest
  3. How greatly the seizure interferes with personal liberties

Again, this is a fact based test. Each case is going to be looked at individually, although both Pennsylvania and the Supreme Court have stated that in order to pass the test, the seizure must begin with a minimum of reasonable suspicion. That is, the officers must have a reasonable suspicion that illegal activity is taking place. This suspicion must be particularized such that it can be spoken by an officer and must be individualized such that the officer can point to one or maybe two people or objects that are suspicious.

This is a general idea of the law defining your right against unreasonable seizure. Talk to your attorney today about the evidence against you, and whether it may have been a product of an unreasonable search or seizure.  Even if you have challenged the evidence at trial for being unreasonably seized, there still may be an opportunity to appeal and get the evidence removed in a new trial.

You deserve every opportunity for a great defense.